The challenge of finding time for the important but not urgent tasks

I took a quick peek at my to-do list before biking to the office where I’m less efficient than at this home computer. Here’s what I have to do in order of the email files, most recent to least recent.

1. Delineate a new collaboration with a colleagues in Germany.

2. Comment on a paper for a colleague in Illinois.

3. Comment on a paper for a grad student in Brazil.

4. Get ready for a Saturday kayaking trip to look for wasps.

5. Comment on a paper for a post-doc in my own lab group.

6. Complete a final report for an NSF grant.

7. Vote in a society election.

8. Write a letter of recommendation for a former undergraduate.

9. Help a student decide where to send a manuscript, and comment again on said manuscript.

10. Make a decision on a manuscript that has received the necessary reviews for a journal were I serve on the editorial board.

11. Finish writing a manuscript by 1 January, firm deadline.

12. Finish writing a manuscript by 1 December, less firm deadline.

13. Resubmit paper that is tentatively accepted.

14. Help revise a manuscript with a colleague in Finland.

Well, this isn’t all going to get done today. Do I skip a half hour at the rec center in the weights room to make more of a dent on this list? Do I skip a celebratory lunch with two of my just-finished grad students? Do I forgo the reading by Salman Rushdie tonight? How much time do I allocate to the papers I need to write and how much to commenting on other’s papers? This list doesn’t have any teaching in it for now, but of course I need to plan for next semester’s teaching.

By now you’re probably thinking I have no business writing this blog. But let me tell you a surprising fact. The more you write, the easier writing is, and writing freely helps overcome the biggest challenge to scientists. Separating writing from science can help facilitate learning the former, to the benefit of the latter.

I always like to remember the sage advice of my much beloved father-in-law, who is no longer with us, and was a medieval historian at Illinois. He said that just because a job was worth doing did not mean it was worth doing well. This philosophy can help save time for the important and not urgent from the administrivia that fills our days if we let it. But I can’t imagine him doing any task anything but well.

There are lots of things that can trip us up. Maybe making the good-enough decision in 20% of the time and understanding that the extra time arriving at the perfect decision is not worth it is a good trick. Just don’t apply this to your research. There even 100% is often not enough, and leaves us wondering why we designed an experiment in a certain way.

I wonder how my time use will be altered at Washington University, and how much of the change will be under my control.


Wonderful home desk.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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2 Responses to The challenge of finding time for the important but not urgent tasks

  1. Phil says:

    I am very good at doing jobs worth doing without doing them well!

  2. I hope you only do that for the less important ones, to save time for the important ones! Glad you’re reading this! When do we see you???

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